New family travel fave: Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

Sunset at Flathead Lake Lodge

No, I didn’t have my family with me on a recent trip around Glacier Country, Montana. But I didn’t need three kids in tow to appreciate the family travel awesomeness of Averill’s Flathead Lake Lodge (FLL) in Bigfork.

I stayed at the lodge two nights as part of the week-long #PictureMontana summit through my client, Expedia. I walked away with a new addition to my travel-dream list.

Much of what makes FLL kick-ass appeals and applies to guests of all ages. Horses you can ride every day. Boats you can take out on Flathead Lake. Communal meals in an authentic western lodge. S’mores by the campfire every night of the week. The fact that the place is all-inclusive means you don’t have to fumble around for cash or credit cards, and don’t have to worry about the a la carte pricing on activities. The fact that it’s been there for more than 70 years means it’s oozing with history.

(True story: Chase Averill, who’s my age, runs the place now. His dad, Doug Averill, ran it for years and still plays a pretty important and visible role today. His grandpa, Les Averill, started the place in 1945.)

But the lodge also is PERFECT for families. My accommodations—Cabin 2—had two bedrooms, one with a queen-sized bed and another with two twins (which would have been perfect for L and R). During the summer season, kids have dinner together 30 minutes before the grownups, then head out on horseback rides to give the grownups some time to themselves. There’s cornhole and beach volleyball and board games galore.

Heck, on the night of the weekly steak fry, everyone gathers ‘round to hear a cowboy sing folk music.

(Also, the beach at the lodge was made for skipping stones. See the slo-mo video of me doing that here.)

The reality is that absolutely everything is included in the one-week stay—lodging, food, activities, and more. The only thing that’s not technically part of the package is alcohol; instead, FLL encourages you to bring your own and help yourself to it whenever you desire.

I’m not going to lie—at $3,808 per adult, $2,842 per kid ages 6-17, $1,546 per kid ages 3-5, and $182 per infanct, the place ain’t cheap. It would cost our family of five $12,236 plus airfare. But when you consider what seven days of this experience would cost if everything was priced individually, the rate is reasonable. What’s more, when you consider that FLL serves up a dude-ranch experience unlike any other in the West, it seems even more worthwhile. The only question left for us: When do we return?

Family destinations in Missoula

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck.

Hissing cockroaches. Yuck. (But cool!)

Even when I travel without the kids, I’m always on the hunt for awesome family travel destinations. That explains why I just spent two hours of my (solo) afternoon here in Missoula, Montana, poking around two of the city’s most family-friendly spots: the Missoula Insectarium and the University of Montana’s spectrUM Discovery Area Downtown.

I’m here in Missoula for the next five days on behalf of a client, Expedia. Every year those of us who contribute to the Expedia Viewfinder blog get together in a faraway place for a week of strategizing and bonding. Last year’s summit was in Maui; this year’s is in one of my favorite places on the planet: Western Montana (a.k.a., Glacier Country). I arrived earlier this afternoon and had a few hours before our first official #PictureMontana meeting. So I hit the streets to explore.

I didn’t have to go too far from our hotel to find kid-oriented stuff; the Insectarium and spectrUM share a building that was literally two blocks away.

The Insectarium was first on my list. After paying the $4 admission fee and grabbing a magnifying glass at the front desk, I perused the exhibits, marveling at some of the arthropods (not just insects!) on display in 18 terrariums that ring the room.

I’ve detailed how much L and R despise bugs, but I had to think they would have found parts of this place really neat. Like the habitat full of butterflies. And the millipedes. They probably also would have enjoyed the touch table where visitors can interact with walking stick bugs (and a variety of other critters).

(Without question, they would NOT have liked the habitat with a dozen Madagascar Hissing Cockroaches. Or the one with the scorpion.)

The kids also would have adored participating in the Insectarium’s scavenger hunt, which anyone can do.

My favorite part of the Insectarium? The Goliath Bird-Eater Spider, which is a species of tarantula. When I was there, this spider was hidden at the bottom of a flower pot in its habitat. Even though it was motionless, even though it was all scrunched up, I could tell the thing was HUGE. My mind was blown.

(I also enjoyed learning that Roly Poly bugs are actually not bugs at all; they’re crustaceans—cousins of crabs and lobsters.)

After hanging with the bugs, I ventured downstairs to the spectrUM facility—one of the cleanest, nicest, and most approachable museums I’ve ever seen. Technically the museum is a science museum, not a kids’ museum. Whatever you call it, the place is perfect for kids ages 12 and under, and you can plan on spending at least an hour there.

The modest museum is broken into two main parts—the main museum and a hands-on area, which is dubbed BrainLab. Today in the BrainLab, visitors were learning about brain maladies during Shakespeare’s time, part of a week-long celebration surrounding Shakespeare’s First Folio, which is on display in Missoula until the end of the month. I watched long enough to see kids playing with plastic brains.

In the main museum, an exhibit on large river ecosystems gave kids the chance to soar (via virtual reality) above the Clark Fork River, create their own virtual floodplain, and more. Another exhibit, the SciGirls DigiZone, offered the opportunity to play with different kinds of technologies. A third exhibit, the Discovery Bench, encouraged hands-on play with science.

What struck me about spectrUM was how engaged and satisfied all the kids seemed. It’s truly remarkable how much more palatable learning is when you’re having fun. Clearly, here in Missoula, they know this better than most.

What are your favorite museums for families and why?

Inspired to spread the family travel gospel

FTA Summit crew, September 2015

FTA Summit crew, September 2015

Inspiration is a powerful thing. It’s what lead people to vote for Barack Obama, what has intrigued people about author Ta-Nehisi Coates, and what has compelled people to come together to support Batkid.

As a full-time freelance journalist for the last 18 years, I have spent a whole bunch of my time reporting on other people’s inspiration. Earlier this week, however, as a board member who attended and participated in the first-ever Family Travel Association summit, I was delighted to be the one experiencing the inspiration first-hand.

It wasn’t difficult to be inspired; the summit brought together about 80 of the biggest and boldest thinkers in the world of family travel today. There were experts. There were representatives of big travel companies. There were owners of small travel companies. There were photographers. There were other writers. Almost all of the people present were moms and dads who have traveled with their families.

And everyone descended upon the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch for one reason: To talk about how we can work together to raise awareness of the importance of family travel.

Some people moved me more than others. Like Ida Keiper and Jesemine Jones, the women behind Abeon Travel, a travel consultancy dedicated to assisting families that include children with special needs. And Randy Garfield, the former Disney VP who now devotes his time to the U.S. Travel Association and Project: Time Off, one of the most important research efforts in the history of the American people. And Margo Peyton, who, through her company, Kids Sea Camp, strives to get children travelers SCUBA-certified so they can explore the underwater world. And travel writing icon Wendy Perrin, who’s been writing about family travel forever and simply is flat-out awesome.

And some ideas left an indelible mark on my brain. Like some of the new family travel data from FTA and Expedia. And the “18 Summers” campaign from Idaho (hint: watch the video). And Jim Pickell’s suggestion for a new equation to measure family travel—an equation that compares meaningfulness of experiences to expenditures. (Pickell, the founder of HomeExchange.com, is a pretty neat dude himself.)

Heck, the conference even provided scientific evidence behind the notion that travel makes you smarter; in an intellectually rollicking concluding seminar, Nancy Sathre-Vogel explained how new places and new experiences stimulate the growth of dendrites in our brains.

(Some of us joked that Sathre-Vogel’s presentation provided the basis for a new ad campaign that evokes 1980s anti-drug ads and contrasts a brain to a brain on family travel.)

In short, there was a lot to keep the brain buzzing.

The next step is making it all count. Technically speaking, the FTA’s mission is to “inspire families to travel—and to travel more—while advocating for travel as an essential part of every child’s education.” Now, however, with one summit under our belts, we need to codify a strategy and figure out how and where we want to be. Personally, I’d like to see the group become an information resource for consumers, a networking/best-practices group for industry insiders, and an advocate for the right issues (such as family passenger rights on airplanes).

What about you? What would you demand/expect from a Family Travel Association? What sorts of activities and endeavors do you think the FTA should pursue? Share your opinions and become a part of the discussion.

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